Review of Without a Summer, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Without a Summer

by Mary Robinette Kowal

Tom Doherty Associates (TOR), 2013. 381 pages.
Review written June 25, 2021, from my own copy
Starred Review

My sister Becky gave me this book years ago (Thank you, Becky!), but alas, like so many non-library books that don’t have a due date, I didn’t get to it right away. But the time was finally right when I signed up for the 2021 Jane Austen Summer Program, a four-day virtual symposium on Jane Austen, and Mary Robinette Kowal was one of the speakers, giving two wonderful talks about putting fantasy into your Jane Austen adaptation.

At the conference, I also learned that the year 1816 really was a year without a summer. The note at the back says that after a volcano erupted in the West Indies, the ash disrupted weather everywhere, and there was snow in Washington DC in July. In fact, Mary Robinette was able to determine the weather in London for the days covered in this book. I had assumed when I started reading that it must have been a side effect of magic – so I was quick to believe that people would have looked for magic users to blame for the strange weather, which turns out to be a key point in the book.

This book is another Austen-like story, with magic. The author does write each book as a stand alone. In this third volume of the Glamourist Histories, Jane’s sister Melody needs to find a husband and is running out of options in the country, so Jane and her husband take Melody to London while they work on a glamural for Lord Stratton.

The author worked in ideas from Jane Austen’s Emma as Jane tries and fails to be a good matchmaker for her sister. But there’s a lot more going on as well. Sir David’s despicable father wants to renew their relationship and meet his wife – but there are some plots afoot. And the coldmongers are getting blamed for the wintry weather in summer – even though that is not how glamour works. It all builds to a big climax that puts Jane and her husband in danger, with Melody’s happiness also at stake.

Meanwhile, I enjoyed Mary Robinette’s sessions at the Jane Austen symposium tremendously, and gained a new appreciation of her craft in writing these books. She wanted to write a fantasy novel similar to the books Jane Austen wrote – where the fate of the world is not at stake, but instead the happiness of a few people. She wanted magic, but in order for it to be one of the womanly arts, it had to be magic that didn’t do much. The “glamour” in these books is all about illusion. And it’s typically done by women – except for professionals glamourists, who of course are men. So Sir David working with his wife is breaking ground and defying convention.

Another thing I found out when I looked in the back of the book is that my sister-in-law Laura (then Plett) is acknowledged! She does calling for English Country Dances, and gave the author some tips about how the dances were done in Regency England. So it was fun to come across her name in the back of my book.

This series is lovely and highly recommended. I hope this will give me the motivation to set aside the recently published books I need to read for Capitol Choices and read a couple more Austen-with-fantasy books purely for my own enjoyment. There are two more in the series, and it’s high time I caught up.

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Review of A Most Clever Girl, by Jasmine A. Stirling and Vesper Stamper

A Most Clever Girl

How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice

by Jasmine A. Stirling
illustrated by Vesper Stamper

Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2021. 44 pages.
Review written June 16, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

How do you tell kids about the life of a novelist who writes books for adults? Jasmine Stirling talks about Jane Austen’s supportive family and life circumstances growing up. But she also, in a simple way, explains what kind of writing was prevalent in Jane’s day and how she made fun of it. Here’s how the book begins:

Jane loved stories – long ones, short ones, worn and new.

But there were some kinds of stories that she just couldn’t stand.
These were pale stories with delicate ladies who fainted all the time. (ALAS!)
Or gloomy stories with orphans on doorsteps and terrible secrets in the attic. (OOOH!)
Or sticky-sweet stories where people fell in love at first sight. (EWW!)

This was the fluff that was fashionable in those days. Jane found it, well, stale. And predictable.

You see, Jane had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous.

Jane started writing silly stories that poked fun at the fluff.
In one, a pair of pale ladies took turns fainting on a sofa. (ALAS!)
In another, a mother abandoned her baby under a haystack only to discover her alive . . . weeks later. (OOOH!)
In yet another, two children were so hungry they bit off their mother’s fingers. (EWW!)

After this engaging beginning, the book goes on to tell about the circumstances of her life. How her father encouraged her writing. (I love the inclusion of the writing desk he gave her, since I’ve seen that desk in the British Library, and when I did, it brought tears to my eyes.)

But then money got tight, they moved to Bath, and Jane’s father died. The book takes us through those events and on to the time when her brother gave Jane and her sister and mother a cottage to live in. There, Jane began writing again and found her voice.

The illustrator explains at the back how much she enjoyed researching on location. She uses pink to represent youthful playfulness, gray for the hard years, and green as Jane found new maturity.

This book came along just in time for the Jane Austen virtual symposium I’m attending beginning the day after I’m writing this review. The author is going to be speaking and talking about how she attempted to convey Jane Austen’s life in picture book form. I’m looking forward to hearing her speak, already impressed with the results of her work.

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Review of Unmarriageable, by Soniah Kamal

Unmarriageable

Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan

by Soniah Kamal

Ballantine Books, 2019. 342 pages.
Review written June 1, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

I’ve signed up for a virtual Jane Austen Summer Program happening in June, and Soniah Kamal is one of the speakers, so I wanted to read this book in advance, and I was delighted when I did so.

This is a pretty straight retelling of Pride and Prejudice, following fairly closely parallel scenes and conversations, only this time set in modern-day Pakistan. But let’s face it: Pride and Prejudice tells a wonderful story, so this version was wonderful, too.

One nice twist is that our heroine, Alysba Binat, teaches English Literature at an international school. So in the first chapter, we see her going over an assignment with a class of ninth-grade girls: to rewrite the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice. The one the author chooses to begin the book is this:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a girl can go from pauper to princess or princess to pauper in the mere seconds it takes for her to accept a proposal.

As in the original, Alysba is the second of five sisters, and her mother is very concerned with them grabbing husbands. Especially when the event of the season is coming up – a major wedding celebration. At the first event of the wedding, Alys’s sister Jena meets a rich man “Bungles” Bingla, who seems quite taken with her. Now her mother is determined she must get him to propose. Meanwhile, Bungles has a proud friend, Valentine Darsee, and Alys overhears him saying that he is particularly unimpressed by her.

This continue as we know they will – and it’s wonderful. Something I particularly liked about this retelling is that everybody’s drawn a little more sympathetically. We see that Mrs. Binat simply wants the best for her daughters. Dr. Kaleen is honestly helpful to Annie dey Bagh, and we see that Alys’s friend Sherry honestly does find happiness by marrying him. Even the awful proposal and later reversal is as realistic and believable in this story as it is in the original.

Darsee and Alys talk in this novel about literature and how Pakistan adopts literature from all over the world, as well as writing some that is uniquely Pakistani – and I liked that touch, showing deep appreciation for Jane Austen and her universal themes, while giving those themes a new setting.

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Review of Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict, by Laura Viera Rigler

Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict

by Laura Viera Rigler
read by Kate Reading

Tantor Audio, 2009. 9 hours.
Review written May 17, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

I’d already read and reviewed the companion to this book, Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, where Courtney Stone from modern-day Los Angeles gets transferred to the body of Jane Mansfield, a young lady who lived in Regency England. This book gives us the flip side of that exchange, and tells us what it’s like for Jane Mansfield to wake up in modern-day Los Angeles, in Courtney’s body.

I enjoyed this story more. I’m sure it was partly that I’d gotten used to the premise and didn’t get bogged down on the fantasy of the mechanics and how it wouldn’t really work to switch bodies. I was used to the idea and just went with it.

And the challenges of a young lady from the past trying to deal with present-day technology are astounding! She didn’t even have the vocabulary to know what things were called. The author did make use of “cellular memory” – the body itself knew how to do things, just as Courtney was remarkably good at embroidery when she was in Jane’s body. So Jane in Courtney’s body could quickly navigate using a computer, once somebody showed her what it was. She used her concussion as a reason to need a lot of things explained to her.

It was a lot of fun seeing the modern world through a 200-year-old consciousness. When she arrives and Pride and Prejudice is playing on Courtney’s TV, Jane is astonished, wondering how the actors got into the box, and she definitely recognizes the scene, for she, too, is a Jane Austen addict – but didn’t even know the name of the author of Pride and Prejudice. She’s delighted that there are four more novels by this same author on the shelves of her modern-day apartment.

I still wasn’t exactly happy about how each woman was trying to straighten out the other’s love life. Because who is really in love with whom if it’s a different person in that body? And then the author fudged the ending a bit, so it didn’t end exactly as I expected it to. Did I misunderstand the ending of the other book? All the same, it seems everyone will live happily ever after. What more could you ask for?

This set of books is a lot of fun, and the more so the less you get bogged down in trying to figure out how it would work. Don’t try; just enjoy it. After all, it would take a little magic for someone to live and learn to thrive in a life 200 years in the future.

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Review of The Jane Austen Project, by Kathleen A. Flynn

The Jane Austen Project

by Kathleen A. Flynn
performed by Saskia Maarleveld

HarperAudio, 2017. 11 hours on 9 CDs.
Review written May 3, 2021, from a library audiobook.
Starred Review

Here’s another book featuring time travel to Jane Austen’s time. My time listening to this audiobook in the car happened to overlap with listening to the eaudiobook Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict. But this one meticulously explained how the purposeful and planned time travel happened – much more satisfying to the science fiction reader in me.

You see, in the future, after the “die-off,” time travel has been developed. Rachel Katzman, a doctor who has done work with disaster relief and happens to love Jane Austen novels, applied and was accepted to the Jane Austen Project, an undertaking of the Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics.

Her mission, together with Liam Finuca, an Austen scholar, is to go back in time to 1815, not long before Jane Austen’s death. They are posing as a brother and sister, Dr. William Ravenswood and his sister Mary. They arrive in 1815 with counterfeit money strapped to their bodies. They plan to ingratiate their way into the society of Jane’s brother Henry, and from there make the acquaintance of Jane. And they want to be good enough acquaintances to somehow get a copy of the complete version of The Watsons as well as find the missing letters, before those letters get burned by Jane’s sister Cassandra, and maybe diagnose the disease that killed Jane.

Can they do all this? They’ve got a letter of introduction from an Austen relative in Jamaica, so it would be difficult to check. But can they win Henry over, and then Jane? It helps when Henry gets sick and Liam becomes an attentive doctor friend checking on him. Henry doesn’t know that it’s “Mary” who’s the real doctor, telling her “brother” what questions to ask.

There begin to be signs that they’ve disturbed the “probability field,” so they have worries about what they’re changing by all their actions in their own past.

This book was delightful. I loved the way they had to know all about Jane Austen’s life and about customs of the time, so that gets conveyed to the reader (unlike the poor clueless heroine in Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict). The book pulls you in and helps the reader see all the difficulties one would face if you tried to be accepted into the society of 1815 without detection.

This book is like Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict in that part of the difficulty – and some of the humor – is a woman with more modern attitudes regarding sex trying to fit in during that time, when attitudes are very different. Fair warning to Jane Austen fans: This book has more sex scenes and sexual situations than Jane Austen’s books do.

I’m not completely satisfied with the ending, when it’s revealed, that yes, their time travel changed some things. (I think it’s not a spoiler if I don’t say what was changed, parts of which made me happy.) But then, I always have trouble with time travel paradoxes. I did appreciate that they attempted to explain the repercussions.

And the book is so much fun! You forget it’s fiction and feel like you’ve been immersed in Jane Austen’s time and Jane Austen’s society. A real treat for Jane Austen fans.

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Review of Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, by Laurie Viera Rigler

Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict

by Laurie Viera Rigler
read by Orlagh Cassidy

Penguin Audio, 2007. 7 hours.
Review written April 25, 2021, from a library eaudiobook

I’m on a roll of reading Jane Austen take-offs, and this is one of the silliest, or I should probably say most light-hearted.

Courtney, a modern young woman who lives in Los Angeles, recently caught her fiancé cheating on her. As part of her healing process, she did her usual Jane Austen binge. But one morning she wakes up to find herself in the home of a young lady who lives in the English countryside during Jane Austen’s time, in the body of that young lady.

The young lady is named Jane Mansfield, and she has recently had a terrible fall from a horse. When Courtney tries to tell people that she is not, actually, Jane, they try to help by bleeding her (with dirty equipment!) and threaten to put her in an asylum. She has to go along with it. Surely it’s temporary, and she can just humor them, but it seems awfully realistic and she doesn’t want to live it out in an asylum.

The book never does adequately explain why this body-switching happened. There’s talk about the fluidity of time and a wish and trauma and… well, whatever it was, it’s fun that it happened. (I also wasn’t completely satisfied about what her “destiny” was that would take her back, but I won’t give that away.) For a fantasy fan like me, that aspect was awfully murky.

This book is also a lot more raunchy than most Jane Austen take-offs. Courtney had been sexually active with her fiancé and other people before him, and she appraises the men she meets with that in mind – which does not really fit with Jane Austen’s England. But now Jane’s mother very much wants her to marry Mr. Edgeworth – and Courtney can’t remember why Jane was opposed to that plan. But she gets flashes of Jane’s memories, and she’s afraid that even in a different body, she’s attracted to an unsuitable man.

Along the way, there’s lots of humor as Courtney’s modern sensibilities clash with life in Jane Austen’s England. And though some things appall her – such as having to use a chamber pot – she begins to make the best of the situation – and the reader (or listener) gets to enjoy it with her.

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Review of Longbourn, by Jo Baker

Longbourn

by Jo Baker
read by Emma Fielding

Random House Audio, 2013. 13.5 hours.
Review written April 9, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

A big thank you to my coworker Pam who told me about this book after I posted my new Austenalia page. Longbourn focuses on the home of Elizabeth Bennet during the events of Pride and Prejudice and tells us about the lives of the servants.

This isn’t the same flavor at all as Jane Austen’s books, dealing with ladies and gentlemen and polite society and appearances and sweetly and innocently finding husbands. Details are a little more sordid, and there are some unpleasant scenes and situations. The book begins on a wash day, and Sarah, a housemaid, has these thoughts about her employers:

The young ladies might behave like they were smooth and sealed as alabaster statues underneath their clothes, but then they would drop their soiled shifts on the bedchamber floor, to be whisked away and cleansed, and would thus reveal themselves to be the frail, leaking, forked bodily creatures that they really were. Perhaps that was why they spoke instructions at her from behind an embroidery hoop or over the top of a book: she had scrubbed away their sweat, their stains, their monthly blood; she knew they weren’t as rarefied as angels, and so they just couldn’t look her in the eye.

Longbourn is a small household, with the butler married to the housekeeper. Sarah is the older of the two housemaids, and she’s only a teen herself. At the start of the book, a stranger comes into town, and he quickly becomes their new footman. There are some questions as to why a young man would be available during a time of war.

Something fun about this book is that yes, the events of Pride and Prejudice play out among the young ladies, but those things aren’t nearly as interesting to the servants as what is going on in their own lives. The author has given them intriguing back stories.

So don’t think of this as a Jane Austen read-alike. It’s not. But it is a fascinating and absorbing account of what life was like for ordinary people in England during the Napoleonic Wars. It’s about making do and surviving, but also about finding love and finding opportunities. What would a servant dream of making of themselves during that era?

I will add that in revealing the back stories of the servants, Jo Baker gives us some surprising back stories of the main characters. Bingley’s family made their fortune in sugar, and there are some implications about one of his servants – but that’s only the beginning of the back story revelations.

I wasn’t too sure I’d enjoy it as the book began, since I’m used to thinking of only the pleasant side of Austen heroines. But the more I listened, the more caught up I was in the lives and situations of these people who began to feel like they knew a lot more about how the world really works than the fine ladies I was used to reading about.

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Review of The Jane Austen Society, by Natalie Jenner

The Jane Austen Society

by Natalie Jenner
read by Richard Armitage

Macmillan Audio, 2020. 12 hours, 34 minutes.
Review written March 11, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

Oh, The Jane Austen Society is delightful in every way! I had recently discovered I can listen to eaudiobooks while pulling holds at the library and was finding myself making more lists of books to pull to get more time to listen to this book. I was surprised to learn the author is a debut novelists, and disappointed that I can’t immediately read more of her books.

The Jane Austen Society is set shortly after World War II, focusing on a disparate group of people from Chawton, the final home of Jane Austen. Tourists already came to Chawton looking for signs of Jane, but there was no place focusing their interest. The Knight family that owned the estate has no direct heir, so the things that Jane once lived among were in danger of getting lost. A group of people living in the village discover that they all love Jane Austen, and decide to do something about preserving her legacy.

A lot of the charm of the novel is discovering how the different people all develop their love for Jane Austen’s novels and are surprised to learn this love is shared. Yes, there are romances among the characters, and yes, some of them echo the situations from Jane Austen’s novels.

There are also problems with the inheritance of the estate, and personal problems as so many in the village are grieving losses from the war. There’s even a movie star who loves Jane Austen and has some money to bring to the project. Her fiancé is interested in pleasing her by helping to back the project, though it’s questionable how much his heart is in it.

A lot of the story is told from the perspective of the local widowed doctor, who knows everyone in the village and sees to everyone’s medical needs. Which also means he feels personally responsible when there are people he can’t save, especially when that included his own wife. Then there’s the farmer who does odd jobs for everyone in the village, and the maid on the estate who had to leave school early but is fascinated by the books in the family library, which once Jane Austen might have read.

In all, the author does a magnificent job of showing us a village of people in complicated relationships with one another – rather like Jane Austen herself would do.

And it’s all narrated with the marvelous deep voice of Richard Armitage, distinguishing between the characters enough to help us follow the large cast as they interact. (I am never very fond of how British folks do American accents, but all the lovely British accents made up for it.)

A special treat for me, a hardcore Jane Austen fan, was the many discussions among the characters of fine points in Jane Austen’s books, discussions of favorite characters, of blind spots in the characters, and this or that subtle point made. The delight of eavesdropping on these conversations added to my enjoyment of the book. And, yes, I knew all the references. Other hardcore Jane fans will enjoy that part, too, though it’s not a requirement to love the book.

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Review of Dangerous Alliance, by Jennieke Cohen

Dangerous Alliance

An Austentacious Romance

by Jennieke Cohen

HarperTeen, 2019. 429 pages.
Review written September 25, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#8 General Teen Fiction

Here’s another fun variant on Jane Austen! This one is a romance for teens set in England during the time that Jane Austen had published the first four of her books, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Emma.

Our heroine, Lady Vicky Aston, has read and loved Jane Austen’s novels and relates her own life to the events in those books. But there’s a dark side in Vicky’s life that we don’t really see in Jane Austen. Vicky’s sister Althea has fled from her husband, Lord Dain, because he is horribly abusive. The same day that she comes back to the family home, Vicky is attacked in the countryside and fortunately rescued by Lord Halworth, a young man she grew up with but who lived for years on the continent and didn’t answer her letters.

Vicky’s father is determined to get Vicky a divorce, but it’s going to be difficult. At the same time, they need to get Parliament to make Vicky his heir instead of Althea, because if Althea is the heir, the estate would be under Lord Dain’s control. However, Vicky can’t be the heir unless she gets married. So her parents give Vicky a mission: to find a husband during her season in London.

Meanwhile, there are some more attacks. There are misunderstandings. There are accidents that don’t seem like accidents. There are odious suitors and a couple of very nice suitors. But who can Vicky trust? And who is behind those attacks?

It’s all in good fun – while at the same time showing us glimpses of the dark side of the Georgian era and how little agency women actually had.

Another delightful excursion for Jane Austen fans.

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Review of Pride, by Ibi Zoboi

Pride

by Ibi Zoboi

Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins), 2018. 289 pages.
Starred Review
Review written October 15, 2018, from a library book
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#4 General Teen Fiction

This is a Pride and Prejudice “Remix,” set in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. I have lost count of how many Pride and Prejudice tributes I have read (Actually, that’s not quite true, since you can find links to all the ones I’ve reviewed on the page when I post this.) – and honestly, I’ve loved them all. This is no exception.

Zuri Benitez and her four sisters watch as a new family moves into the house across the street. It used to be run-down, but they’ve been renovating it for a year, and now it’s a mini-mansion. Ainsley and Darius Darcy are fine – but who are they to come strutting into the neighborhood thinking they’ll help it out? You guessed it – older sister Janae and Ainsley hit it off right away, but there are fireworks first between Zuri and Darius.

I got to thinking about Pride and Prejudice. It might seem obvious, because it’s right there in the title, but isn’t it all about respect? When someone smart, good-looking, and yes, rich, moves into town – who is he to think he’s better than the rest of us? The Elizabeth Bennets of the world – highly intelligent themselves and with a loving, close-knit family – deserve respect, too.

But maybe they’re a bit quick to believe they’re not getting it from the Mr. Darcys of the world.

The Pride and Prejudice story is universal because it’s about earning respect – and discovering that good-looking, rich man who has the world’s respect might actually be kind and sensitive and doing good things that go beyond the externals – he might actually deserve Elizabeth Bennet’s respect, too.

It’s also about culture clash. The guy who has made it in the predominant culture moving in near the metaphorical peasantry – and needing to learn to appreciate that their lives, too, have rich community around them.

Pride tells that universal story in a new setting, with a great big helping of delight. Zuri is an Elizabeth Bennet with attitude. She’s a poet, and I’m guessing she’s going to make it into Howard. Here’s a window into her process of discovering that Darius Darcy is more than externals, too.

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